Basic car maintenance saves you money and helps reduce the risk of a breakdown. You only need to spend a few minutes each week to do these checks.
Basic safety checks
These basic safety checks are easy to do. It's a good idea to perform them regularly.
- Check all exterior lights are working. A good time to do this is when you park your car in the garage at night. Close the garage door, turn the ignition and lights on and check their reflection against the walls.
- Check that glass surfaces (including the mirrors) are clean and free from chips, cracks and scratches.
- Check that the windscreen wipers and washers operate efficiently.
- Check the wiper rubbers are secure and in good condition.
- Make sure the horn works.
- Test the handbrake to ensure it 'holds' the car on steep hills.
- Check the condition of the seat belts. Make sure the webbing is not worn, visibly damaged or sun bleached. Give the belt a sharp tug to make sure that it will lock.
- Check tyre pressures and tyre condition, including tread depth.
Check your engine oil weekly. The best time to check the engine oil level is when the car is warm and on level ground. Stop the engine and wait a few minutes for the oil to settle, remove the dipstick and wipe it clean. Push the dipstick all the way in, wait a second, and then withdraw it and check the level.
The oil should be between the two marks and not above the top mark or below the lower mark. Remember to push the dipstick fully in when refitting.
If required, oil may be added through the oil filler cap opening (generally found on the top of the engine). To avoid overfilling, add about half-a-litre at a time and recheck the level on the dipstick. Remember to refit the filler cap.
Use only oil of the correct viscosity and service rating as recommended by your vehicle's manufacturer or a reliable mechanic.
Manufacturers do not generally recommend the use of oil additives and anti-friction supplements.
If your vehicle has a dipstick for the automatic transmission (check your owner's handbook for its location), check the fluid weekly. You should check the oil level in accordance with the instructions in the car's owner's manual. Often this will be after the car has been driven for about 10 kilometres, so that the oil is hot.
The engine should normally be running (check your manufacturer's recommendation) and the vehicle should be on level ground. Put the car into Park and apply the handbrake.
Remove the dipstick, wipe it clean with a clean cloth or paper, and re-insert fully. Remove the dipstick again and check the fluid level. The fluid should be between the 'add' mark and the 'full' mark. Take care not to overfill.
If more fluid is required, add the recommended type of fluid through the dipstick tube. Allow about a minute for the oil to stabilise before re-testing the level with the dipstick.
Manual transmissions and automatic transmissions not equipped with a dipstick are more difficult to check. Your mechanic should perform fluid level checks on these transmissions.
Check the coolant level at least weekly. If your car is fitted with an expansion tank (a plastic coolant reservoir) check that the coolant level is at or slightly above the 'minimum' mark when the engine is cold, or somewhere between the half and 'maximum' marks with the engine at normal (hot) operating temperature.
It's also essential to regularly check the coolant level at the radiator when the engine is cold. It should be full.
If your car is not fitted with an expansion tank, check that the water is within about 25mm of the top of the filler neck when the engine is cold. For your own safety, do not open the cooling system when the engine is hot as you could receive serious burns.
If more coolant is required, the system should be topped up with a mixture of clean water and the recommended coolant/inhibitor.
Persistent coolant loss indicates a problem, which your mechanic should check immediately.
The level should be checked with the engine stopped, and after the car has been driven for a while, so that the fluid is warm.
Remove the power steering oil reservoir cap (which often has a small dipstick attached to it). The oil should be maintained at, or slightly below the 'HOT' mark. Use the correct oil type (usually auto transmission fluid) for top-ups. Check the car's handbook for reservoir location and oil type.
Brake and clutch fluid
On most modern cars you can see the brake and clutch fluid levels through the transparent plastic reservoirs fitted to the master cylinders. Otherwise, remove the cap and check the level inside the reservoir.
The level should be maintained between the maximum and minimum marks.
Do not open the reservoir unnecessarily as brake fluid absorbs moisture from the air. Avoid contaminating the fluid by wiping dirt away from the cap area before removing. Only top the reservoir up with new brake fluid of the correct grade. If constant topping up is required, it may indicate a leak. Have your mechanic check it immediately.
Brake fluid will damage paint work very quickly so wash spills off with plenty of clean water straight away.
A plastic reservoir for the washer fluid is almost always mounted in the engine compartment (check owner's manual for location). Fill the bottle with clean water and, if you want, a special windscreen detergent. Do not use household detergents for this purpose.
Make sure the terminals are clean and tight, and that the battery is fixed securely. The fluid level inside the battery should be maintained between the marked levels, or about 5mm to 10mm above the plates. If it needs topping up, use only distilled water. Do not smoke or use naked flames near a battery. The acid is corrosive, so take care to wash off acid contamination with plenty of clean water.